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Must-Click Link: Inside the Astros front office

Jun 26, 2014, 3:38 PM EST

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The other day we teased the cover from this week’s Sports Illustrated in which the Astros are touted to be the 2017 World Series champs. That was just a grabber, of course. The content behind it is this in-depth story by Ben Reiter about the inner workings of the new Houston Astros.

The big story you know: it was an awful team that had a bare cupboard in the minors when new ownership took over and installed Jeff Luhnow as the GM who, in turn, hired Sig Mejdal as the team’s Director of Decision Sciences. It’s still a pretty bad team at the major league level, but now some top prospects are starting to make an impact and hope seems to be around the corner.

But how are they getting from that terrible A through this currently promising but still unsuccessful B and on, hopefully, to the Championship C? By consuming all of the data they possibly can, be it statistical, scouting and everything in between. Making decisions based on probabilities, subjective judgments, objective judgments and human tendencies alike — filtered through Mejdal’s decision sciences methodology — to come up with all of the answers teams have struggled to reach since the beginning of baseball history:

To that end Mejdal and his analytics team—which has grown to four and occupies an area in the Astros’ offices that they have named the Nerd Cave and decorated with a Photoshopped image of scientists examining Vladimir Guerrero in mid-swing—created an evaluation system that boils down every piece of information the Astros have about prospects and players into a single language. The inputs include not only statistics but also information—much of it collected and evaluated by scouts—about a player’s health and family history, his pitching mechanics or the shape of his swing, his personality. The system then runs regressions against a database that stretches back to at least 1997, when statistics for college players had just begun to be digitized. If scouts perceived past players to possess attributes similar to a current prospect, how did that prospect turn out? If a young pitcher’s trunk rotates a bit earlier than is ideal, how likely were past pitchers with similar motions to get hurt?

The end result is expressed as a numerical projection which roughly translates into how many runs the player can be expected to produce compared with what the team is likely to have to pay him.

The first image I get is the Deep Thought computer from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” tasked with finding the answer to life, the universe and everything. And maybe it is like that in more ways than merely its attempt to take in all possible variables in an effort to get a single answer. Maybe, because baseball is filled with so many uncertainties and unexpected developments, it will yield the right answers but the Astros will find they have been asking the wrong questions. There will always be limits to data, be it numerical or subjectively collected data. There will always be unexpected developments.

Maybe that means the Astros do win the 2017 World Series. Maybe they do it sooner. Maybe they plod along for a decade never quite getting where they’re wanting to go. We can’t know that from where we sit and, if they’re being honest, the Astros brass can’t know that too terribly much more than we do.  But it’s very cool to see the inner workings like this, and it’ll be quite fun to watch it all unfold.

  1. natstowngreg - Jun 26, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    +1 for Hitch-Hiker’s Guide reference. Though, as we learned later in the 5-book trilogy, the answer was based on the wrong question. [The answer, 42, was Jackie Robinson’s number. Coincidence? Probably not, as Douglas Adams was from the other side of The Pond. But one cannot be certain…]

    In the non-fictional universe, human potential cannot be reduced to one number. At least the Astros, in trying to come up with a system for rating human potential to play baseball, balance stats with observation of humans by other humans. IMHO, that’s the best a fan can hope from his/her favorite team’s organization.

    • mikhelb - Jun 26, 2014 at 7:32 PM

      “The answer, 42, was Jackie Robinson’s number. Coincidence? Probably not, as Douglas Adams was from the other side of The Pond.”

      Yes, it was a coincidence, Douglas knew about baseball but that’s about it, he just enjoyed the game the couple of times he attended a game, at least thats what he once said in an interview eons ago in ZDTV (later TechTV) a bit before he died.

  2. asimonetti88 - Jun 26, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    Very well-written story.

  3. stex52 - Jun 26, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    Now all their plan has to do is work.

    BTW, 42 is the uniform number for Matt Albers. Coincidence? I think so.

    • asimonetti88 - Jun 26, 2014 at 7:04 PM

      Matt Albers is #37?

    • jeffa43 - Jun 27, 2014 at 1:45 AM

      42 is retired by all. Jackie Robinson.

  4. sportsdrenched - Jun 26, 2014 at 4:50 PM

    Interesting. If this works, and then combine that with some of the stuff Nate Silver has done and some of the technology in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series will be on it’s way to becoming reality.

    Another reason to keep an eye on the Astros.

    • tmc602014 - Jun 26, 2014 at 5:12 PM

      Outstanding! HHGTTG and Foundation in one story. Hari Seldon lives!

  5. mazblast - Jun 26, 2014 at 5:01 PM

    The answer is 42–but what was the question?

    • tmc602014 - Jun 26, 2014 at 5:23 PM

      “The first image I get is the Deep Thought computer from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” tasked with finding the answer to life, the universe and everything.”

  6. Hard On For Harden - Jun 26, 2014 at 6:02 PM

    I can’t help but picture the Nerd Cave as the Globex programmers working under Homer Simpson in that Hank Scorpio. But yeah, 2017 is a little ambitious for a WS title.

    • Hard On For Harden - Jun 26, 2014 at 6:04 PM

      *episode

  7. jkaflagg - Jun 26, 2014 at 6:54 PM

    Good point about whether the Astros are asking the right questions, because that’s what really matters…..for all the hysteria about computers “taking over our lives”, the fact is that computers are simply tools that do what people program them to do; so if those people are smart they are likely to enhance their results, but if they’re dumb they’ll simply get a confusing mess….really pretty simple.

    • sportsdrenched - Jun 27, 2014 at 9:41 AM

      Not that simple. You can have piles of data. Piles of good data. More data than a human brain can process. It now has to be organized into something useful.

      It’s when you try and organize the data to find out what you want that you realize you may have asked the wrong questions.

  8. sergioxjacques - Jun 27, 2014 at 5:05 AM

    It’s too bad their new system didn’t see JD Martinez and his new and improved swing being an extra-base machine

  9. unclemosesgreen - Jun 27, 2014 at 5:53 AM

    Just after the nanosecond that it took for Carmine to digest this article, he allowed himself a picosecond’s pause to suppress a giggle. He then carried on producing similarity scores for every switch-hitting high school shortstop living below the Mason-Dixon line. But that’s a Thursday for you.

  10. nukeladouche - Jun 27, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    I know it’s early, but I could really go for a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.

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